Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


The Physical Dangers of Stress

Is being stressed out more harmful than you realize?

Stress leaches health out of your body, and, if not adequately mitigated, can eventually lead to anxiety. Stress and anxiety not only negatively affect your emotional and mental health, but they can also weak havoc on your physical body. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of stress:

Your heart. Stress causes the heart to speed up. Often, blood pressure increases and your heart seems to be ready to burst out of your chest. This increased demand on the heart can also produce an irregular heartbeat called an arrhythmia.

Your lungs. People suffering from high stress tend to breathe heavily and rapidly, putting a heavy strain on their lungs. Sometimes this can result in a panic attack. During a panic attack, one of the primary symptoms is gasping for air, resulting in hyperventilation. This rapid intake of air provides more oxygen than your body actually needs and results in a corresponding drop in carbon dioxide in your blood. This drop forces your heart to work even harder and strains your respiratory system.

Your stomach. Stress really puts your gastrointestinal system through the wringer. The longer your stomach stays in a state of agitation, the greater the possibility of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. You can experience all the symptoms of a digestive system out of balance: indigestions, acid reflux, constipation, nausea, and diarrhea.

Your muscles. Many people manifest their stress in a specific region of the body, such as the back, face, or neck. The constant contraction of these muscles leads to tension and pain. The longer tension is put on these muscles, the harder it is to release the resulting knots and experience true relaxation, even in sleep–some people clench their face and jaw muscles and grind their teeth.

Your skin. Stress has a way of returning your skin to a state of adolescenceskin prone to breakouts of rashes, acne, and psoriasis.

Your immune system. Stress is a little like the story of the boy who cried wolf. In this story, a young boy persistently sounds the alert, warning of a wolf. Of course, each time is a hoax; there is no wolf. When you are constantly under stress, you are yelling wolf to your immune system. Eventually, it wears down and can no longer respond appropriately to a real danger.

Your reproductive system. Chronic stress can result in painful periods and fertility issues. It’s as if your body recognizes “now is not a good time” and reduces your chances for reproduction.

Your weight. Your body has a variety of stress hormones. One is cortisol, which increases blood sugar levels while suppressing the immune system. Its job during stress is to get you physically pumped up with energy and systemically less reactive. While this is a good idea if you need to race across an airport to catch your plane, it’s not especially helpful in everyday life. Cortisol causes people to put on excess weight, leading to hypertension and cardiovascular problems.

Your head. Stress is painful, especially when it is manifested in chronic headaches and migraines. Females are almost twice as susceptible to tension headaches than men.

It is no wonder, with the range of physical symptoms associated with stress and anxiety that people search for answers. If you are struggling with some of the physical symptoms of stress or anxiety, here are some common ways to combat the stress in your life:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Deep breathing
  • Eating healthy
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Spending time with people you enjoy
  • Scheduling time to focus on your favorite hobbies
  • Professional help

Gregory L. Jantz, Ph.D. is the founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE. The content of this post was derived from his book Overcoming Anxiety, Worry, and Fear.

More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today